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Art Through Time: A Global View

Portraits Art: Portrait Head

» Moche artist, Peru

Portrait Head

Portrait Head
Artist / Origin: Moche artist, Peru
Region: South America
Date: ca. 200–800 CE
Period: 1 CE – 500 CE
Material: Clay with paint
Medium: Ceramics
Credit: Photo © David Bernstein Fine Art, New York, NY

In the ancient world, portraiture frequently meant generic representations that were associated with particular individuals through the use of symbols (of rank, status, gender, etc.) and inscriptions.

The Moche culture, which thrived on the north coast of Peru circa 100 to 800, was one of the few to develop a form of portraiture that sought to capture individualized features in a naturalistic style and with a high degree of accuracy. The reappearance of idiosyncratic details in multiple portraits, moreover, indicates an interest not only in physical likeness, but also in representing the same person at various moments or stages in life. Although molds were used to produce the portraits, each seems to have been slightly altered to give it a unique appearance.

This Moche portrait depicts a man of perhaps twenty to thirty years of age. His round face is marked by broad features. He wears long hair and a headdress that might originally have been painted. Stripes of darker color run down either side of his face, and he bears a distinguishing facial scar on his upper lip. Circular plugs in the man’s earlobes are likely a marker of his elite status. Indeed, extant works suggest that portraits of this kind were reserved for important figures in society—rulers, nobility, warriors, and in some cases, prisoners. All known examples represent men.

Like other Moche portraits, this head is a hollowed-out, three-dimensional vessel. Although most Moche portrait vessels known today were found in graves (often as a result of looting), the wear and tear exhibited by these objects attest to a utilitarian nature. These vessels, which come in a number of different shapes, often with stirrup-shaped spouts attached, were, in fact, containers for liquids such as a chicha, a fermented maize beer. The shape of this particular head suggests its use as a bowl. Unfortunately, objects that are used are often short-lived. It is likely, therefore, that the number of extant Moche portraits represents just a small fraction of those that were produced.

Although evidence is lacking regarding the distribution of Moche portrait vessels, we do have some clues. The use of molds in the creation of these portraits points to mass reproduction, while their small size—generally between six and twelve inches high—indicates portability, hence easy dissemination over distances. These circumstances suggest that portraits might have been sent out by rulers to vassal states as assertions of sovereignty or traded between elite groups or personages as symbols of alliance.

Expert Perspective:
Stacy Goodman, Senior Consultant for Pre-Columbian Art, Sotheby’s

“Portraits are a way of memorializing your status, your personality, your power. It’s a way of fighting your mortality.

The Moche portrait heads of Peru were made for a very specific purpose between 100 and 700 A.D. We know the Moche culture from their art, which is primarily pottery depicting rulers at different stages of their life. We don’t know exactly what they drank out of them. Some people think it was this maize beer. Some people think it could have been sacrificial blood. The Moche loved to portray things in an incredibly realistic way. Part of that are these facial characteristics that they show over and over again. Somebody who has a cut lip, somebody who has a droopy eye, somebody who’s got this massive jaw.

I think Moche heads are about status. They were sending the best portraits they had of their ruler to say he is now dominant. It’s like a huge billboard, he is in command here.”

Additional Resources

Bourget, Steve, and Kimberly L. Jones. The Art and Archaeology of the Moche: An Ancient Andean Society of the Peruvian North Coast. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

Donnan, Christopher B. Moche Portraits from Ancient Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Oettinger, Marion, Miguel A. Bretos, and Carolyn Kinder Carr. Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Pillsbury, Joanne. Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2006.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2